Friday

(v. 8)

Matthew 15:1-9 Friday 21 October 2022

Psalm 90

Background

Jesus had regular encounters with the religious authorities throughout his ministry and today’s reading is typical of them. The Pharisees and scribes ask a question to try to expose how Jesus is breaking the established Jewish law, but as usual Jesus is one step ahead, and responds in a way that exposes his critics as hypocrites.

In this instance, the Pharisees ask why Jesus' disciples don't wash their hands before eating. We regard this as good hygiene. It's something that was at the heart of the recent response to the Covid-19 pandemic, when we saw the Prime Minister and many others washing their hands while singing 'happy birthday' to demonstrate how long it should be done for. While the focus of this conversation is about the interpretation of the Jewish law, and how strict or flexible that should be, today it seems odd for Jesus to be suggesting that hand washing wasn’t necessary.

Many of the Jewish laws related to washing and eating have a basis in good hygiene and public health, particularly at a time when the cause of infection was not understood. However, they often led to a series of ritualistic actions which accompanied the basic practice of hand washing or eating/avoiding certain foods. Today, ritual washing is observed within Orthodox Judaism but only to varying degrees in the Reformed Judaism tradition.

Perhaps Jesus was using it as an example of unnecessary ritual: something that provides an opportunity to create unjustified barriers between the ritually clean and unclean, who would include many women and people with certain illnesses. It may also have been an opportunity to both expose the hypocrisy of those in authority, who seemed to have double standards, picking and choosing which rules to obey and enforce and which they would be flexible about, as well as being a springboard to the discourse that follows and which we will read tomorrow.

To Ponder:

  • Are there rituals in your own church life which create barriers between those who know about them and those who don’t? Are these spiritually helpful or not?
  • Put yourself in the position of the Pharisees and scribes trying to maintain standards. What would be your approach to Jesus?
  • How do we deal with conflicting rules and regulations in our Church and society? If a national body makes a decision do we feel obliged to follow that?
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